Free Wireless Access Points Placed Across Cambridge

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Sept. 7, 2007 news article, “Free Wireless Access Points Placed Across Cambridge,” misspelled the name of one of the pilot programs. It is in Newtowne Court, not NewTown Court. The article also gave the wrong location of the pilot program. It is located on Main St. between Windsor St. and Portland St., not on Massachusetts Ave. Additionally, the article misspelled a company name. It is Meraki, not Maraki. Oliver Thomas, manager of the Computing Help Desk in Information Services & Technology, clarified that the city has been evaluating both using the open-source Roofnet code developed by MIT and using Meraki’s commercial solution that is loosely based on the Roofnet code. Earlier deployments such as the one in Newtowne Court were based on the Roofnet Project and later deployments such as the Harvard Square Project were built on Meraki solutions.

Wireless access points have been deployed in parts of Cambridge, Mass., as part of the experimental stage of the Cambridge Public Network, a project which started a couple of years ago to provide the entire city with free wireless Internet access. The initial access points are set up in areas including Harvard Square and NewTown Court on the corner of Windsor Street and Mass. Ave.

Fetahe Mekonnen, wireless project manager for Cambridge, said that the city is working on a feasibility study to investigate user demographics and best practices. In the initial deployments, the focus has been on “best practice,” making efficient use of city assets such as street poles for access points while providing flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing technology, Mekonnen said.

Oliver Thomas, Manager of Computing Help Desk in the Information Services and Technology Department, added that the city engaged a company to perform the study over the course of the past few months. While the results of the study have not yet been shared, they should become public early this fall. MIT’s role in the WiFi project has basically been as a consultant, Thomas said.

The largest of the pilot programs is at the NewTown Court housing project. Mekonnen said that the NewTown Court program has been going well and should be finished within the next two months.

According to Mekonnen, trial installations at the most recent pilot deployment at Harvard Square showed heavy public usage of the free WiFi. According to Thomas, a few hundred users had already begun using the network steadily four days after the Harvard Square program began, even without advertisement. Thomas said that he believes there is a well of potential users for the Cambridge network.

In the early stages of the project, the city tried to use MIT’s RoofNet networking technology, Thomas said. One of the problems, according to Thomas, is that the RoofNet code — now about five years old — only runs on “legacy hardware.” The city has been evaluating whether to adapt the RoofNet code to current hardware or switch to Maraki, a company that sells low-cost mesh access points. Maraki recently brought free wireless to parts of San Francisco.

Initially, MIT’s involvment in the project focused on the RoofNet technology, but now MIT has shifted more towards giving advice about business models that might work, Thomas said. According to Thomas, once the project moves out of its pilot phase, MIT might host some access points on campus at places such as Kendall Square. Mekonnen also noted that future plans are not yet definite and that the next step would be clearer once the feasibility analysis is complete.

Mekonnen stated that the city is not trying to compete with private vendors who provide their own wireless connections for a fee. He said that the goal is to provide the “best effort free service” that gives users basic capabilities like surfing the Web and checking their e-mail.